Court reporting


Be aware tweeting allowed in some courtrooms but not others

This is another in a series of articles by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press covering legal issues that affect journalists. RCFP’s McCormick Legal Fellow Jamie Schuman wrote this article.

George Zimmerman, right, stands with his attorneys, Mark O’Mara, left, and Don West, center, as they watch the jury enter the courtroom on the 17th day of Zimmerman’s trial in Seminole circuit court, Tuesday, July 2, 2013, in Sanford, Florida. Zimmerman was eventually acquitted of second-degree murder in the 2012 shooting death of Trayvon Martin. (AP Photo/Orlando Sentinel, Joe Burbank, Pool)

At George Zimmerman’s trial last summer, Orlando Sentinel reporter Rene Stutzman wrote traditional stories but also tweeted courtroom highlights sometimes more than 50 times a day.

“It provided pieces of information to followers of Twitter who wouldn’t otherwise be looking at more conventional news sources, like reading the newspaper or watching an evening newscast,” Stutzman said. Read more

Scales of Justice sits in a courtroom.

How to cover a court trial: 6 tips for journalists

As newsrooms continue to contract, some media outlets have been criticized for their diminishing coverage of the courts, including high-profile trials. As journalists move to other beats or leave their newsrooms, their institutional knowledge about how to cover trials goes with them.

Here are six tips for writers who might be new to a courtroom, and what they should do before and after they get there.

Before you go to court:

1. Make friends with everyone.

Unless you have a law degree, it’s going to be hard to understand some cases by simply reading the complaints. You don’t want to be confused when you get into the courtroom.

Lawyers will happily fill in the blanks, and they’re not hard to track down. Their contact details are in court documents, dockets or law firms’ websites. Read more

Judges Gavel

6 tips for reporters tracking state legal cases

Newsrooms across the country have been hemorrhaging staff for more than a decade. They’ve had to cut back on major areas of coverage, including investigative reporting and another important beat: court reporting.

Today, reporters might be dispatched to cover big trials, but everyday lawsuits and court hearings are often overlooked. The courts can provide a rich source of daily stories as well as compelling narrative features, and it doesn’t take much time to keep tabs on them when you know what to do.

This piece offers six tips for tracking the legal cases you and your readers, listeners and viewers will want to know about. The tips focus on state courts because they’re often free; the federal courts make most cases available online, but they’re behind the PACER paywall. Read more

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Kermit Gosnell verdict reached, but reporters told to turn off phones


The Philadelphia Inquirer announced just before 2:30 p.m. that a verdict had been reached in the trial of Kermit Gosnell, the Philadelphia abortion doctor accused of killing four babies born alive and an adult patient. Jurors have been deliberating for 10 days.

The paper announced on its Facebook page:

There is a verdict in the Gosnell case, court personnel have told Inquirer reporter John P. Martin. Extra sheriff’s deputies have been ordered into the courtroom, which is now locked. Reporters have been told to shut down their phones.

It’s unclear if requiring phones to be turned off is a routine occurrence. During the Jerry Sandusky trial, Judge John M. Cleland initially said phones had to be turned off, but later allowed them to be used for live-tweeting and live-blogging. Read more


West Virginia judge’s suspension shows need for cameras in courtrooms

The National Law Journal | WSAZ

Poynter’s Al Tompkins has written for years about why courtrooms should allow cameras during proceedings. This week, some news from West Virginia helps make his case further:

The West Virginia Supreme Court on March 26 suspended Putnam County, W.Va., Family Court Judge William Watkins III without pay until December 2016, citing 24 violations of the state’s judicial ethics rules.

The justices said that, while in court, Watkins shouted profanities at people and threatened litigants. On one occasion, he called a woman seeking a protective order against her husband “stupid,” they said. He told her to shut up and criticized her for “shooting off [her] fat mouth about what happened.”

One YouTube video of Watkins yelling at litigants last May has racked up more than 200,000 views. Read more

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Supreme Court Building

Why the Supreme Court should allow TV cameras in the courtroom

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court hears arguments about the Defense of Marriage Act, which denies federal benefits to legally married same-sex couples. Yesterday, the court considered whether states can ban same-sex marriage.

You can read tweets about these historic hearings as the morning goes on, but the court will not let you watch them and access is limited. The craziest part of all, to me, is that America is not demanding a change.

Last year, the court decided the future of the nation’s health care system. In 2000, it effectively decided who would be president. The public can’t witness these decisions being made because, as Justices Stephen Breyer and Anthony Kennedy have suggested, people might not understand the complex work of the court, cameras could hurt the dynamics of the court, and someone might mug for the camera. Read more

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Why it’s so hard for SCOTUSblog to get Supreme Court press credentials

SCOTUSblog has gotten widespread attention in recent weeks for its accurate and detailed coverage of the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Affordable Care Act and the mistakes CNN and Fox News made while covering it.

Despite high reach and widespread use, SCOTUSblog it’s still not credentialed by the Court — and probably won’t be anytime soon. The issue renews attention to the limitations of press credentialing and raises important questions about whether the credentialing criteria for news sites needs to change.

Obtaining Court, White House and congressional credentials

SCOTUSblog reporter Lyle Denniston, who’s been referred to as an “icon of the Supreme Court press corps,” has a Court credential — but only because he also files reports for WBUR in Boston.

“We’ve raised the issue several times over the years, going back at least to the point Lyle started with us” in 2004, said SCOTUSblog Publisher Tom Goldstein in an email. Read more


Abrams warned of media mistakes before Supreme Court ruling

ABC News Legal Analyst Dan Abrams expected that news organizations might incorrectly interpret the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Affordable Care Act.

“Beware of #media mistakes on #ACA ruling,” he tweeted at 7 a.m. this morning. “I remember how many got it wrong on Bush v. Gore.”

Abrams was one of the first reporters to interpret the Gore v. Bush ruling correctly.

“I remember not knowing how much everyone else had screwed it up during Gore v. Bush until after the fact because there wasn’t social media and there wasn’t the level of accountability that there is today,” Abrams said in a phone interview. “There were just a few articles after the fact analyzing the coverage.”

CNN and Fox News both incorrectly reported that the individual mandate was struck down, causing confusion over what the Supreme Court had actually ruled and an uproar on Twitter, including a “Dewey Defeats Truman 2.0” meme. Read more


CNN issues correction, Fox issues statement on Supreme Court reporting mistakes

The ruling has come down: Both CNN and Fox badly bungled their reporting of today’s landmark Supreme Court opinion on healthcare. And both organizations have taken very different routes to correcting their mistakes.

Here’s Fox’s correction, via Mediaite:

We gave our viewers the news as it happened. When Justice Roberts said, and we read, that the mandate was not valid under the Commerce clause, we reported it. Bill Hemmer even added, be patient as we work through this. Then when we heard and read, that the mandate could be upheld under the government’s power to tax, we reported that as well—all within two minutes.

By contrast, one other cable network was unable to get their Supreme Court reporter to the camera, and said as much.

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Who was first with healthcare ruling depends on where you were looking

Forget the war going on between AP, CNN and Fox over the latter outlets’ botched announcement of Thursday’s Supreme Court ruling — a much more important battle rages in the mediasphere.

On Wednesday, SCOTUSblog reporter Lyle Denniston told The Washington Post’s Sarah Kliff that “our number one ambition is to beat everybody” with news of the ruling. SCOTUSblog’s publisher, Tom Goldstein, said his ambition was to beat AP:

“The TV people out front literally won’t have it for about two minutes,” SCOTUSblog publisher and co-founder Tom Goldstein said. “After they hand it to Lyle, I expect 25 seconds after that, we’ll have it on the live blog. I would be surprised if the Associated Press can beat us.”

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